The gadgetry fetishism of Bond’s universe feeds on the same impulse. The character of Q, the chief geek of the Secret Intelligence Service, recalls the wartime boffins who came up with world-beating inventions like radar and code-cracking computers. Fleming is determined to show that British ingenuity—a fruit of the ethos of “effortless superiority” celebrated by the public-school system—can still hold its own, even in a world dominated by big-spending Americans. The Cold War had reduced Britain to the role of a minor auxiliary of the United States—a sense reinforced, to particularly humiliating effect, by the scandalous news of the disappearance of Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess in the summer of 1951, two card-carrying members of the British establishment who were later revealed to have been serving as Soviet spies, along with Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt. The disgrace of their defection hangs like a shroud over the birth of Bond.
What comes through quite clearly in Parker’s account is that Bond’s creator had a very precise notion of the confection he was trying to produce. Fleming called his formula “disciplined exoticism.” He always made a point of sending his hero off to enticing locales, like Istanbul or the French Riviera, while steering away from destinations that might have seemed, well, overly Third World–ish. Fleming was fully aware of the escapism his readers craved: “The sun is always shining in my books,” he once remarked. Moonraker provoked some angry feedback from a number of his fans, who objected to the book on the grounds that it was set almost entirely in the United Kingdom. Fleming always strove to maintain a distinctly Caribbean note of sprightliness.
Yet his Bond is never tempted to go native. 007 is always his own man, always ineffably British. Cool self-possession triumphs, no matter how dangerous or alien or alluring the environment. And just when things threaten to succumb to the burgeoning outlandishness that Mike Myers captured so well in his Austin Powers movies, Fleming invariably rivets the story to reality with his surprising grasp of physical detail, a sharp note from the headlines or a bit of unabashed product placement. Fleming’s contemporary critics tut-tutted about his fondness for brand names; it’s a tic that wasn’t invented by the movies. Yet despite his high-style sheen, Bond is notable for his utter lack of aristocratic pretensions, and his consumerism roots him firmly in an age when class status is giving way to the meritocracy of the newly moneyed.
PARKER’S NARROW focus on Fleming’s life in Jamaica has its drawbacks. He offers only the sketchiest account of the writer’s life before the outbreak of World War II. Fleming’s wartime career in intelligence, so crucial to the imagining of his hero, barely gets a mention. Neither does Parker have much time for Fleming’s prewar career—or, more precisely, his nagging failure to find one. (At various moments he tried diplomacy, journalism, banking and stockbroking, never to much effect. It was the war that finally gave him direction and saved him from quotidian boredom.)
It might have helped if Parker had been willing to go into a bit more depth on these points, since the relative brightness of Fleming’s Jamaican interludes is hard to comprehend without complementary insight into the man’s extraordinary inner torment. He labored under the legacy of an absent father, who died a hero on the western front in World War I, and also from the meddling of his captious mother, who was still ordering him around well into his forties; his Jamaican refuge was, in part, a way of putting her at a distance.
And then there was the great love of his life, the aristocratic Ann (née Charteris). The two carried on an affair through her first two marriages—the first to Baron Shane O’Neill, who died in World War II, the second to Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail. When Rothermere finally drew the line and divorced her, it seemed only logical that she would respond by turning to the only man she had really loved for all those years. Yet her marriage to Fleming in 1952 seems to have marked the beginning of the end of their relationship. Fleming liked to claim that he had started writing Casino Royale in part to deal with the stresses associated with retiring from bachelorhood.
At home in London she cultivated a highbrow literary set that sneered at Fleming’s pulp fiction, and there are stories that have him sneaking up the stairs to avoid getting trapped in her late-night salons. She never really embraced Jamaica—an antipathy that seems to have deepened as she became aware of his local mistress, Blanche Blackwell—and Parker’s story correspondingly doesn’t capture all the highs and lows of their relationship. If you want to learn about the tragic life of the Flemings’ only son, Caspar, who committed suicide in 1975, you’re better off turning to Andrew Lycett’s excellent biography.
NEVERTHELESS, PARKER’S approach yields many valuable insights. If you want to appreciate Bond’s cosmos, zeroing in on the creative milieu that gave birth to him makes perfect sense. Fleming was a man of deep and often-toxic contradictions, and they emerged with particular clarity in his adopted home. He affected an air of clubbish nonchalance, but, as his boozing suggested, he also suffered from severe self-loathing and a poorly concealed death wish. He could be effortlessly charming when he felt like it, and he inspired intense loyalty among his friends—yet he could be gratuitously opprobrious, if not downright vicious, to those he saw no need to seduce. His relationship with Ann seems to have been founded on a shared proclivity for sadomasochism: “I loved being whipped by you and I don’t think I have ever loved like this before,” she confided to him.
Fleming also dreamed wistfully of a life of bohemian freedom even as he actively sought out the claustrophobia of stuffy clubs and high society. Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of Fleming’s many literary friends, nicely characterized the international jet set he encountered on the island: “Ice clatters in shakers and poker dice are thrown unceasingly on the bars of this Jamaican Nineveh, and, for the uninitiated visitor, the chasms of tedium yawn deeper every second.” To his credit, Parker is so good at bringing this world to life that you can understand exactly where Fermor is coming from.
It’s easy to make fun of Bond, and of our own fascination with him. But the truth is that his creator succeeded, where so few have, in producing a hero for a deeply cynical age. 007 is so vividly overdrawn that it’s easy to forget the traits that make him human. He may be a rake, but he does fall in love. For all his ruthlessness and implacability, he has a healthy hatred for the forces of chaos and totalitarianism. And he celebrates life and those who live it to the fullest.
Fleming certainly aspired to do the same, but he ended up dying at age fifty-six, consumed by his fondness for period vices. Bond, by contrast, shows little indication of leaving the stage. Once more, he’ll go on to die another day.
Christian Caryl is a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute in London and a contributing editor at The National Interest and Foreign Policy.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Nationaal Archief